I’ve said many times in my reviews: horror franchises don’t work. More often than not, they descend into derivative repeats of whatever made the first instalment so successful, offering little more for audiences than the cinematic equivalent of a cheap haunted house at a crappy local fair. ‘The Conjuring’ franchise has somehow managed to both break this rule and prove it at the same time. The two main films, both directed with exceptional skill by James Wan, are rare examples of great studio horror films of late and a strong studio-led horror franchise. Concurrent to those though are its spin-offs, attempts to turn the Conjuring films into a kind of cinematic universe, mostly involving their most iconic creatures. And their success rate has so far left a lot to be desired.
The second spin-off ‘Annabelle: Creation’ is a prequel to the first 2014 spin-off ‘Annabelle’, which was itself a kind of prequel to the first 'Conjuring' film. (Because sure, why not?) This new film delves right back to the creation of Annabelle, the demonic doll who acts as host to some satanic evil. Set in the 50s, ‘Annabelle: Creation’ follows a small group of orphaned girls and their carer, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), starting a new life at the isolated home of retired toymaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his reclusive wife Esther (Miranda Otto). Janice (Talitha Bateman), one of the girls who suffers from the effects of polio, is drawn to a locked bedroom in the house, where she uncovers the doll Annabelle and lets free the evil locked away inside her, somehow connected to the Mullins’ deceased daughter.
The first ‘Annabelle’ film was a thundering bore, but early positive responses had me quite hopeful for this one, especially after the wonderful surprise of ‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’ last year. Unfortunately, while this new film has a lot more going for it than the first, it still leaves a hell of a lot to be desired. Despite its potentially interesting set-up and a few flashy set-pieces, so much of this film feels tired, familiar and annoyingly derivative. The first problem is the conceit of Annabelle herself - she worked as a figure of fear in the first 'Conjuring' film because we only saw her fleetingly. Essentially though, she’s just an inanimate object with a creepy face, and this film relies too much on the assumption that audiences will just be freaked out by the sight of her. She doesn’t actually do anything, she’s just an object for some kind of evil to hang onto, in this case a demon that look like the blown-up version of the Cornish pixies from ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’ but without Emma Watson to make it go away. There’s almost no attempt at originality with this "evil presence" (it literally says "For your soul" at one point in a deep gravelly voice, for goodness sake), and even though director David F. Sandberg pulls off some nice scary moments and some very flashy camera tricks, they’re almost entirely reaction shots, menacing music and close-ups of the bloody doll.
The film also relies too heavily on familiar horror tropes, referencing countless other (and better) horror films with visual nods that it thinks of as homage but just feel like laziness, giving you the impression that you’ve seen all this before. In a roundabout way, it does provide some unexpected satisfaction, allowing you to play a game where you predict what will happen/be said next with the satisfying guarantee that you’ll probably always be right. I’m never one for rolling my eyes when a character does something a bit dumb in a horror film (it's a convention of the genre, and can sometimes be very effective), but the level to which these characters keep making really stupid decisions, putting themselves in danger even when they know something bad is going on is unintentionally hilarious. You’ve never seen so many horrified reaction shots to doors in your life.
Essentially though, she’s just an inanimate object with a creepy face, and this film relies too much on the assumption that audiences will just be freaked out by the sight of her.
The saving grace of the film is the girls, especially Talitha Bateman as Janice and Lulu Wilson as Linda. The two have a lovely chemistry, and their affection for one another holds the film together mostly. There is something nice about having a majority of the cast be young girls, if only because it allows for more playfulness and humour. Lulu Wilson could pretty much be considered a scream queen by now after also taking the lead roll in ‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’ last year. The adults however aren’t anywhere near as satisfying. Stephanie Sigman tries her best as Sister Charlotte but the character is too annoyingly earnest for to give her anything to play with, Anthony LaPaglia looks like he’s wandered into the wrong film and can’t hide a boredom that borders on catatonia, and Miranda Otto has almost no reason for being there other than to look affected and wear a dumb mask that was probably stolen from that guy in ‘Boardwalk Empire’.
I suspect though that I’m entirely the wrong audience for this film. Sitting in the cinema, I heard countless people screaming, jumping and uncomfortably laughing the whole time, which was useful to drown out my running commentary on how much better it would be as a horror-comedy about Annabelle getting revenge on Linda for hitting her in the face with a ball. This isn’t a film for hardened horror fans, its for people who just want a good cheap scare with no consequence that that’ll go down well with their tasteless popcorn. Even as they were walking out, I could literally hear the audience forgetting about the film. ‘Annabelle: Creation’ is as unnecessary as its predecessor, another in the endless string of dumb, cheap and forgettable studio horror films dished out every year. And we still have another Conjuring spin-off of another pointless character, ‘The Nun’, to "enjoy" in the future (oh goody). Hopefully this is the end of the line for Annabelle, but it’s still pretty baffling that the minds behind this series seemed to think they could get this much traction out of such an ugly friggin’ doll.